With its eighth season coming to a close on April 25, the Seattle chamber-music series Byron Schenkman & Friends is awfully close to becoming a Seattle institution.
“I hope so,” says Schenkman, laughing. “I hope it goes on for years.”
With some new strategies (such as online performances and commissioning original music) in place for expanding its dedicated audience, the series could indeed endure far into the future.
Combining fresh programming ideas (2015’s “Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook,” featuring music J.S. Bach’s populous family played at home, remains a favorite) along with the warmth of collaborations between Schenkman and ever-changing, small rosters of fellow virtuosos, BS&F draws upon baroque and classical repertoires to intimate effect.
“We try to create a musical performance that is welcoming, inclusive, that brings people together into a sense of community,” says Schenkman, a pianist, harpsichordist and Seattle University educator who created the BS&F performances in 2013. “Even in these strange times, when it’s so much more of a challenge to connect with others.”
The April 25 concert, like other BS&F performances this season, will be carried live and free online (donations accepted) from Epiphany Parish Seattle. The performance is called “Beethoven & the Schumanns.”
Typical of Schenkman’s programs, this one covers a lot of thematic ground — with Robert Schumann, the 19th-century German music critic and composer, and wife Clara Schumann, a composer and concert pianist, at the center.
“The Schumanns had such a major influence on the creation of what we now think of as standard European classical concert repertoire,” says Schenkman. “Central to that was Beethoven. Clara, as a touring pianist, performed a lot of Beethoven. She toured with Joseph Joachim [a star violinist of the day]. They performed all the Beethoven sonatas.
“Robert Schumann influenced the course of music history and the history of music performance through his writings as a music journalist,” Shenkman says. “Clara really developed the idea of the recital, including music by composers who weren’t alive anymore, a new idea in the 19th century.”
Joining Schenkman — a native of Lafayette, Indiana, who has recorded numerous albums and won several early-music competitions — will be violist Amber Archibald. Also on hand will be a longtime ally: violinist Ingrid Matthews, with whom Schenkman founded the Seattle Baroque Orchestra in 1994.
The program begins with Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder, or Fairy Tale Pictures for Piano and Viola, ushering in a note of enchantment. The 1851 composition, says Schenkman, is made up of four character pieces inspired by fantasy lore.
“There is a childlike innocence about Schumann. A sense of wonder about the world and his own imagination.”
Clara Schumann, still not widely acknowledged today as a talented composer, will be represented through her Nocturne in F Major for Piano. As with her other known compositions, the Nocturne was written when she was quite young.
“She published a lot of amazing music,” says Schenkman. “The nocturne I’m playing was published when she was 16. She gave up composing early and devoted herself to performing and to promoting the work of her husband and to [their friend] Brahms.”
Beethoven’s 1801 Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major will rewind the clock a half-century. Informally known as the “Spring Sonata,” the piece is among Beethoven’s most beloved.
“I love middle-period Beethoven,” Schenkman says. “The way he was able in a piece like this to transcend life on Earth, which was pretty intense for him at that point. Yet this is sweet, fresh, tender. There are moments of humor; places where he’s downright silly. Overall, there’s a feeling of transcendent beauty and serenity.”
Also on the bill is Polish composer Maria Szymanowska’s Nocturne in B-flat for piano. Szymanowska was an influence on Chopin, who in turn influenced Clara Schumann.
The concert ends with Robert Schumann’s Evening Song, written for three hands on piano, but adapted here for piano and viola. Schenkman likes the idea of ending the night’s performance with the composition’s sense of tranquillity.
“I often end my programs with calm pieces rather than showstoppers,” he says. “My purpose is to leave people in a better place than they started out. It’s not about how amazing we are, how fast or loud we can play. It’s about connecting with people.”